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Kombani blong mi, Joseph Miulge

De Havilland Dragon operating in New Guinea highlandsMATHIAS KIN

An entry in the Rivers Prize for
Writing on Peace & Harmony

AN extremely good-natured, stocky old feller – Joseph - used to come down from the high slopes of Mt Wilhelm every now and then to stay with his ‘daughter’, Dorin Bas, at the DPI compound near Kundiawa, where I also resided in 2004.

Joseph called me “kombani blong mi” and I called him the same. After I learned his age and who he was, my esteem for the bloke increased greatly.

I was amazed that, at his advanced stage in life, he exhibited the stamina and charisma of a 30 year old. Many times we shared a beer at our local Kaugrass Club. He smokes Cambridge brand cigarettes and even chuckled about the opposite sex.

Since I had been indulging in the history of Simbu, I couldn’t let this fellow out of my sight every time I had the opportunity to talk with him. And what an historian he was.

Joseph’s story started in 1933. He was born Miulge. He recounted his story as told to him by his mother, Kogme:

“When I was a few hours old, my mother took me out of the hamlet into the morning sun. She was sitting outside with family members and other admirers when there was a humming noise in the sky in that direction (pointing to the east).

“We thought it was the usual morning humming insects in the trees but the noise got louder and louder and soon it was over our head. My mother carried me and ran into the house. All the people were confused and ran in all directions.

“Some people said it was the bad spirits of the Geregl Bundi people who had come to spell another lot of catastrophes on us. We have never heard a noise this loud before.”

In 1930, the Leahy brothers, Michael and Danny, had discovered gold at Benabena near Goroka. At the time, this was the furthest any white men had ventured into the central highlands. But the discovery was not as promising as earlier thought.

Michael Leahy then convinced his sponsors, the New Guinea Gold Field Company, that they needed to explore beyond Benabena to the west.

On 8 March 1933, a bright blue highlands morning, an aircraft carrying three Leahy brothers, this time big brother Jim was along, and officials from the company took off from Benabena and flew over north Simbu as far as today’s Mt Hagen and back.

This was the same plane that Joseph’s mother and her relatives had heard that morning at Amange village in the Chimbu valley.

So Joseph Miulge was born on 8 March 1933. It was the date that marked the end of the isolation of a million mediaeval people and the beginning of the arrival of white men into Simbu and beyond.

Although he did not know it at the time, of course, Miulge was a special boy.

This first airplane was witnessed by many Stone Age Simbu people that morning. They all saw a big bird making much noise fly high through their skies from east to west and back east some time later.

They hid in bushes or ran into their houses. Many talked of astonishment and wonder. Most people thought it was a magic bird.

The Chuave and Sinasina people thought it was a magic bird sent by the Siane and Lufa people, who were known magicians.

Joseph Miulge’s people in the Chimbu gorge thought it was a magic bird from Bundi.

The Kundiawa and Kerowagi people thought it was a magic bird from the Bomai, who were said to be cannibals who would kill-eat you.

Later the Catholic Mission built an airstrip at Kegsugl. Old Joseph (Miulge) told me of the first time a plane landed there in November 1937:

“I saw the first plane at Kegsugl. Traditionally my Inaugl tribe and the Wandigl were enemies but we did not care, me and many other people went up there to see the first plane land. It came in from the river side.

“As it landed, my hands and legs shook badly and I pissed in my kondai (front garment). When I looked across, the other boys also had water running down their kondai. This was our first time.

“It was a one engine plane and they brought a lot of cargo for the mission. Later, when I went back to Amange, I told everybody – ‘Ah I went to Keglsugl and saw the plane’.”

Many years later when Joseph was a teenager, he and his clansmen helped carry sawn timber for the Catholic Mission down from the Kuragmba Mountains in the Bismarck Range to Goroka.

“Near the Catholic Church in Goroka, I suddenly dropped my load and ran into the bush when I saw the biggest brown pig making so much noise and coming up the mountain fast towards us. All the other men also ran.

“Later we were brought back to the mission and I touched my first car”.

Before 1952, when the road to the coast was not yet constructed, the Catholic Mission and a few of the planters and traders like Jim Taylor and Jim Leahy had flown jeeps in by plane to use on the small network of roads in Goroka and the outlying plantations.

Joseph Miulge told me with a grin that, for the timber they carried from the mountains, a distance of more than 70 kilometres, the men were each paid one tablespoon of coloured beads and a small bottle of paint.

He said it was a white man thing but they were more than happy with it. On later trips, they were given more valuable items like loin cloths, shells, shirts and other goods.

Stemming from the superior stock of the Inaugl tribe in Gembogl, Joseph Miulge was traditionally named after Chief Miulge, his grandfather. He was baptised in 1952 at Toromambuno and given the name Joseph.

Toromambuno was the first Catholic Mission settlement in the highlands after Bundi. Joseph was one of the first people of the area to speak Pidgin and thus was a primary contact person every time the kiaps went into the area.

He assisted the kiaps to supervise the construction of roads and bridges and government stations. Later he joined the Administration and worked as a translator for the kiaps in the Eastern Highlands, which then included Simbu.

In the early 1960s, he became an advisor and translator to Highland leader Kondom Agaundo. Joseph Miulge was a pioneer councillor and first president when the Gembogl Council was formed in 1964 and remained a councillor until 2010.

He served many times in the Simbu provincial assembly. In 1978, he and some selected presidents of Local Level Governments in PNG visited the Queen in England. In 2005, he was awarded an OBE by the Queen for distinguished services to his community.

He also attempted to enter national politics but did not succeed.

Being such a vibrant good looking feller in his time, Joseph attracted many young women from the places he worked but settled for a local girl from the Wandigke tribe.

From this marriage, Joseph and Anna had three sons and a daughter. The girl is married to a man from Samarai. My Kombani, Joseph, also had many grandchildren.

In 2010, 'Kombani blong mi' passed away peacefully unto Ende-ewa Kombuglo (The Forbidden Stone) to join his father Bina and grandfather Miulge.

I did not make it to his funeral in his village in Gembogl but to make amends I thought this short story of a worthy character should be shared with other Papua New Guineans. Lest we forget.


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Mathias Kin

Ende-ewa Kombuglo simply means the forbidden stone, it can also mean an extraordinary big stone, a stone unlike any other stone. This was because of the sheer size of the mountain.
As it is in all early societies around the world where primal religions are connected with things extraordinary,(very big, beep, too high, etc) the tribes around the great mountain believed their death relatives ascended this mountain.

When Joseph Miulge died, his people believed his spirits went up Ende-ewa Kombuglo to be with his father Bina and grandfather Miulge.

The name Ende-ewa Kombuglo will stick - I hope.

Phil Fitzpatrick

Gotta be careful though Chris.

Uluru is an adjective in Pitjantjatjara that means 'wounded or crippled'. In the case of Ayers Rock it's a wounded hare wallaby in a dreaming story.

The myth travels from the south-east and there are hundreds of big rock outcrops called 'uluru' along the way, especially in the Indulkana/Fregon area.

I imagine there's a story attached to Ende-ewa Kombuglo too.

Chris Overland

Otto Von Bismarck was a giant figure in German history and so it was quite a good political move by the colonists to name a distant mountain range in his honour, but I think naming PNG's tallest mountain after his son constitutes major league sucking up to the great man.

Surely the PNG government could rename the mountain "the Forbidden Stone". Not only does this sound a lot better but it would honour the traditions and history of the Simbu people as well.

Australia has progressively renamed many significant geographic features using words from the local Aboriginal dialect. Thus iconic Ayres Rock has become Uluru, the Bungle Bungles have become Purnululu and innumerable suburbs and streets now have splendid Aboriginal names.

I cannot see any reason why PNG needs to persist with names conferred by the colonial administration when suitable traditional names exist.

Mathias Kin

Ha Phil, sorry I didn't explain Ende-ewa Kombuglo. In the early eighteen century, unknown to the highlanders, the German colonialists saw these high peaks from the coast and named it the Bismarck Range in honour of Chancellor Bismarck and the tallest among them, Mt Wilhelm, in honour of the son.

In our Kuman language, Ende-ewa Kombuglo means "the Forbidden Stone". It is of course the highest peak in PNG at 4,509 meters high.

Kela Kapkora Sil Bolkin

Mathias, yalwai, enjoyed this one about Kombani.

May the Mitnande people continue to venture out and melt into the bigger global society and contribute in all spheres.

Arnold Mundua

A great man he was, bro.

I first saw him and learned of his name when he delivered his Independence speech as President of the Mt Wilhelm LLG Council from the grandstand to a packed crowd at Gembogl station on 16 September 1975.

I was a kid then, but the memory never disappeared.

Wherever we crossed paths, we'd chat for while before heading in our separate directions.

He truly was a pioneer, chief and a great leader in the Upper Simbu.

Your article is a fitting tribute to this great man.

Chris Overland

A great story Mathias about an interesting man.

His reference to seeing a plane for the first time reminds me that my own grandfather never saw a plane until he was in France during the First World War, circa 1916.

I imagine Grandpa felt much the same amazement as Joseph Miulge.

At that time many Australians were only marginally more exposed to modern technologies than the Simbu.

Now, of course, we take technologies of various sorts for granted even though we rarely know how and why they work.

The Simbu were not being irrational in assuming planes were magic because, in many respects, they are just that.

Surprisingly few people know enough basic physics to explain how planes fly, let alone how their internal componentry works.

As for our smart phones and the computer upon which I am writing, they work thanks to an understanding of quantum mechanics, which is a scientific discipline that relies upon understanding the truly magical world of sub-atomic particles.

Max Planck, the founder of this branch of science, once said that if you did not find the basic rules of quantum mechanics deeply disturbing you clearly hadn't understood it.

I hope you can collect more stories like that of Joseph Miulge, because they help shed more light not just on the Simbu but on the broader human experience of life in an age of magical technologies and perpetual change.

Phil Fitzpatrick

You'd better explain Ende-ewa Kombuglo for us non-Simbus Mathias.

These stories are precious for future generations. Going through the Ku High School Anthology it's apparent that a lot of students are picking up traditional stories from their parents and others. This is great.

There seems to be two strains to PNG history: that told by expatriates, as in the memoirs of the kiaps (why aren't the teachers etc. writing memoirs too?); and the sorts of stories you are collecting.

Together they make a coherent narrative that is nicely balanced. There needs to be much more of it.

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